Bob Sharp: Teacher, Colleague, Friend.

J. Harnad

Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Concordia University,
Centre de recherches mathematiques, Universite de Mnntreal

Perhaps a better title for this would have been "Waiting for Bob Sharp", since my own experience involved several delays before finally succeeding in meeting him. I first learned about him - by reputation - while still an undergraduate physics student at McGill in the 1960's. Somehow, I seem to have twice missed the opportunity of meeting someone rumored to be one of the "really good" physics Profs at McGill, - and who was specially interested in group theoretical methods in physics. This was the subject that I discovered with great delight in my final year of the honours physics program (the year was 1967) and was thrilled to learn about from Wigner's book, This was a revelation, and I remember being amazed by the beauty and "magical" quality of the results that it led to. However that year, exceptionally, the course was not taught by Bob Sharp, since he was away on sabbatical leave at the University of Illinois.

That was the first missed opportunity. The next year, I happened to follow the same track, going to the University of Illinois, with the intention of doing my doctorate there. I heard of the visiting professor from McGill who had been there the previous year, and had taught everybody a great deal - and who was always spoken of with a certain degree of awe and respect, but who had gone back by then to Montreal.

In fact it was only several years later that I finally got to know Bob Sharp, and learn that the respect and warmth with which he was always spoken of had indeed a very valid basis, which included much more than his special talents as teacher or specialist in group theoretical methods in physics. This was after I had already completed my doctorate, not in Illinois, but as it turned out, through the help and kind encouragement of Prof. Phil Wallace ­ (and a generous Shell scholarship) ­ at Oxford, under the supervision first of Roger Phillips, and then J.C. Taylor. That was in the days of transition between the declining "analyticity - bootstrap" approach to high energy theory, and the beginning of the great success of unified gauge theory. My thesis work unfortunately was still on the old tack ­ Regge and Lorentz poles - however, from a group theoretical viewpoint.

It was only after having spent a couple of years as an I.P.P. postdoc at Carleton in Ottawa, and then, in the rather depressed job market in theoretical high energy physics that existed at that time, finding myself back in Montreal with just a temporary CEGEP professor's job during a particularly hard year ­ 1975-76 - that I got to know Bob Sharp. This was the year of the public service strikes in Quebec that eventually helped to bring about the downfall of the Bourassa government. After attending the necessary quota of rather rowdy union meetings, trying to win the good-will of students for the CEGEP teachers' cause, but finding myself unable to return to the classroom, I decided to while away the time, not on the picket lines, but at the C.R.M. Here, to my delight, I found there was a group of genuine "mathematical physicists" ­ Pavel Winternitz, Jiri Patera and also Bob Sharp (who was often there working with them), specially interested in symmetries and the "group theoretic approach". For me, this was rather a difficult period; it seemed as though any hope of a future career in research was fading in the nearly non-existent job market of the time. But, being at the CRM, even unofficially, was a help, since there seemed to be a "local fluctuation" there that was contrary to the general trend, with genuinely interesting work apparently going on.

Then a small gesture was made ­ by Bob Sharp ­ that psychologically meant a great deal to me. He came to me one day and said "since you are working here anyway, I think we should somehow make this official", and he proceeded to arrange to have a certain amount paid to me from his grant for the rest of the year, as a visiting research associate. Later, he also arranged for me to have an office at McGill. Bob didn't know me very well at the time, - perhaps he had just attended one or two seminars I gave ­ but this positive gesture of encouragement, made very quietly, with no previous discussion ­ just seemingly a spontaneous decision on his part ­ made an enormous difference to me. Afterwards, Pavel Winternitz and Jiri Patera, and later Steve Shnider, all contributed to creating a longer term research associate position for me at the CRM, which gave me the courage to give up the CEGEP job and focus fully on research for a number of years to follow. But the single instance of Bob's gesture was absolutely critical, and probably made the difference between my trying to continue, despite all, to pursue a career in research, or giving up. I suspect there are others who have been helped by him in various ways, perhaps also just when it was truly needed, and that it was often in such a quiet, almost incidental way that he intervened when he did, just doing what seemed to him as natural.

I have always thought of him at least as much in terms of his spontaneous, simple, human good-will, and understanding, as his love of scientific research and the human milieu in which it is done. However I did have occasion, in the following years, through his lectures, and discussions, to learn of his very deep understanding of group theoretical methods and his own special approaches to the solution of problems iin physics by group theoretical means.

Later, I also got to know him well as a friend with a very warm, good nature, and as a great canoeing excursion companion. This is something that he, and Doug, and Pavel Winternitz with his sons and friends had been doing for years before I was initiated into the experience. I won't talk about my own unusual predilections for ending up in the water, together with all the contents and supplies of whichever canoe had the misfortune to be carrying me. But I do remember one particular occasion at La Verendrye Park when, on arriving a little late to our campsite, Bob took a misstep on disembarking and ended up completely soaked. What was striking was that what to others might have been experienced as at least a mildly unpleasant mishap did not seem to diminish his good humour in the slightest. He continued to be as good-natured, good spirited and sociable, while trying to dry himself off, together with his drenched things, as at any other time - maybe even more so. And if we look at his characteristic smile on the pictures posted around us ­ which is the way I always visualize him ­ it was not diminished in the least after this dunking (which, if I remember correctly, actually occurred twice in succession). His pleasure in the environment and his good nature simply did not to allow any diminishing of the pleasure of the moment.

He often used to keep us entertained by stories, at the campfire or elsewhere, - and maybe it was from these, or perhaps on some other occasion that I formed an impression that there was one special time in his life in which he had been particularly happy. This was when he was a fighter pilot trainer during the war. One of the images on the posters shows him at this time, and it makes me think of one of the stories that he told of his experiences during that time. Probably others who are here, especially his family, will know of this story in more detail ­ or others from that time - but it made a particular impression on me because of the way he told it. It seems that at some point while on a flying mission, his plane stalled, and he started into a dive. He described the moment, saying he thought he had better get the engine going again ­ which after a time, he did succeed in doing ­ but without any apparent recollection of distress ­ as though he had just been curious about whether he would be able to do it in time or not. He did not describe it as a harrowing, frightening, or distressing experience ­ but rather as a rather challenging moment whose outcome was not at all clear, and he described it with the same good-humoured smile and tone as one sees in the photograph of him as a pilot. Perhaps at the time, he didnšt have quite such a smile for the whole time before he got out of the stall, but somehow, I think that it must have returned to him very quickly afterwards, and the recollection of the incident just did not cause him any subsequent distress. He was certainly very happy in that period of his life, - but I think that he was also a man who found reason for happiness in all the phases of his life.

That story came to mind many years later, when I came to visit him in the hospital after a multiple bypass operation, during which he was experiencing quite serious complications. He was in a pretty poor state, but I remembered that there had been many, many times in which health problems had loomed threateningly, yet he had managed somehow to get through them, in as good cheer as always, and bringing as little attention to the seriousness of the situation as he could. I couldn't help thinking "Will you be able to get through this one too, and back into flight again, as you were able so many times in the past?" And it really seemed, for a short while, that perhaps he could do it. I briefly saw him, just once more, at the CRM, some time after he had been released from hospital He seemed again in good cheer, - I even remember discussing with him possible places to go that summer, such as a conference in Crete that seemed particularly to appeal to him. But unfortunately, it was not to be.

When thinking of Bob, however, the images that come to mind are inevitably the smiling ones, like the one on the poster where he is standing before a blackboard, ­ which really recalls the animated spirit that he brought to his lectures, or a mental one of him at a campfire telling or hearing stories, from the recent or more distant past, and enjoying it in great spirits, or one of him at home, at Rosemere, with his family and the dogs, or ­ perhaps, the one which precedes what most of us, even his oldest friends here, could have been present to share with him ­ namely, the one in pilot's uniform. He must have valued and enjoyed life very much. He certainly gave a great deal to all those around him, and I'm sure he received much love in return, both from his family, and from all those, colleagues, friends, students who knew him, learned from him, shared with him and benefited so greatly from the experience of having known him.